By Kieran Guilbert
LONDON, May 24 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Britain should use the full force of the law against human traffickers and avoid settling for the "simplest route" in court, said a police chief who described getting victims to speak out as an obstacle to securing more prosecutions.
Police and prosecutors must better utilise the world-first 2015 Modern Slavery Act as they carry out a rapidly rising number of investigations and uncover more victims, said Shaun Sawyer, the National Police Chiefs' Council anti-slavery lead.
The law has been lauded as a milestone in the global drive to end slavery for introducing life sentences for traffickers and forcing firms to outline their anti-slavery measures, but is under review over concerns that is failing to stay up to speed.
Sawyer said he was disappointed with a lack of prosecutions under the legislation, and urged prosecutors to use it more widely instead of just charging slavery suspects for other crimes such as assault, sexual violence and drug offences.
Yet many victims do not see themselves as slaves, and others are unwilling to be part of long cases or go to court, he said.
"When you have a vulnerable victim (of slavery) ... and want the best chance of a conviction ... you'll often go for the simplest route," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation while discussing the complexity and length of slavery investigations.
"But I feel the Modern Slavery Act should be used more, it's good legislation," he said, adding that suspected traffickers were often charged under other laws in the hope of securing victims' support and therefore justice quicker and more easily.
The politicians behind the government-ordered review of the law this week said there had been too few convictions.
The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) convicted 185 people for slavery offences in the 2017-2018 period - against 181 the year before - using not just the Modern Slavery Act but other laws.
The CPS said it prosecuted about 400 people for slavery offences in 2018, but was unable to provide by deadline an annual comparison for such prosecutions in previous years.
A spokesman for the CPS said prosecutors last year took more than two thirds of the slavery cases referred to them to court.
"These are challenging, complex cases to prosecute but the CPS has made significant progress towards disrupting and prosecuting the criminal networks behind it," he said.
Sawyer spoke after the release of a progress report by the Modern Slavery Police Transformation Programme - a 2016 multi-million pound drive to improve anti-slavery policing in Britain.
Police investigations into modern slavery have soared seven-fold to about 1,370 in two-and-a-half years, while cops referred more than 2,000 potential victims to the government for support last year - up by half against 2017 - according to the research.
Yet Sawyer said converting the rise in police operations into prosecutions is "not without challenge", due to factors such as a lack of specialist detectives, analysts and financial investigators, and large volumes of digital evidence to process.
He said cops and prosecutors should pursue more "victimless" prosecutions whereby victims are not required to give evidence in court, but that denying defendants the chance to question their accusers did not "sit well with the justice system".
From children trafficked by drug gangs to girls trapped in the sex trade, Sawyer said he was alarmed by the number of child slaves in Britain and surprised that many people who were exploited or enslaved did not see themselves as victims.
Britain is home to at least 136,000 modern slaves, according to the Global Slavery Index by rights group Walk Free Foundation - a figure 10 times higher than a government estimate from 2013.
"Many victims feel that life is better despite being abused ... others can't accept they've been fooled or exploited," said Sawyer, chief constable for Devon and Cornwall.
(Reporting by Kieran Guilbert, Editing by Claire Cozens. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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